Deadline looms for a plan to save schoolhouse

May 28, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

With a June 19 deadline looming, Bel Air officials are scrambling to save a historic schoolhouse from the wrecking ball. The Harford County Board of Education has given the Bel Air Academy and Graded School a brief reprieve while the town tries to come up with a plan to save it.

"It is a really emotional issue, and we all want to save the building," said Mayor Terrence O. Hanley. "But the town is not even close to having its ducks in order. We need a plan, funding and a solid use for the building. Basically, we are looking for a check writer."

No developer has expressed interest in the two-story brick building on Gordon Street that served as school board headquarters until last year, Hanley said. A town engineer has inspected the building and found it structurally sound, but restoration is estimated at about $2.5 million, Hanley said.

At a meeting Thursday between town and education officials, little progress was made, Hanley said.

"We do have new players, including a local architect who is volunteering his time," Hanley said. "We are trying to work something out, but this is a tough deal."

The board expects to see the town's plan at the June meeting or it will vote on the superintendent's recommendation to raze the vacant building to make way for an expanded playground, parking lot and bus loop for nearby Bel Air Elementary School.

"We won't delay forever," said Ruth R. Rich, school board president. "We want concrete ideas."

Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas recommended razing the school in December but allowed the town, alumni and preservationists the past five months to come up with an alternative. The board intended to vote on that recommendation last week but opted instead to extend the deadline - with a caveat.

"We will require the town and the historical society to bring us options and progress on those options," said board member Patrick L. Hess. "We want a letter of intent from a developer."

Hess suggested moving the school to another location, a costlier option that would require land and moving money.

"We need to have a plan, and we can't wait forever," said Mark M. Wolkow, a board member.

Forcing buses and parents to use the same lane to drop off children is asking for problems, some said. Hanley, a father of two pupils at the elementary school, recalled several fender-benders in the past few months.

"The key here is safety of students," Wolkow said. "We would like the best resolution possible."

The time frame could be an insurmountable hurdle for the town.

"Five months have passed since we took the item from the agenda, and still there are no formal plans," said Rich, who called the issue "a classic example of the clash between the past and future as a community changes."

Hanley, who took office in November, said: "The truth of the matter is we didn't plan. We have known about this for two years, and now we have a deadline."

Interest abounds in retaining the building, however. A standing-room-only crowd, including many people with family ties to the building, turned out for the board's meeting last week to advocate for preservation. Several former students offered glimpses into their school days during World War II.

"We are your students, too, with age on us now, and we still need your help," said James V. McMahan, a Bel Air town commissioner.

About 15 speakers offered pleas, historical perspective and possible uses, including senior housing, an arts center and an education museum. Scott Farley, a Bel Air resident whose children attend the elementary school, questioned the rationale for razing a structurally sound building.

"Take time to find a solution," he said. "You are talking about our heritage here."

Board members said the arguments were compelling, but they are not deterred from their primary charge, which is to develop property for the good of their students.

"We are 180 degrees apart," Rich said. "The best thing for the students of Harford County is our first and foremost objective."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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